How easy is the game of rugby to play these days? How easy is it to watch? What about how easy is it to referee these days?

I have been drawn into thinking about these issues recently after hearing the comments of one of the country's sports reporters last week.

Brendan Telfer has probably been on this planet nearly as long as I have and he made some interesting comments about Super Rugby on National Radio's Morning Report.

He was lamenting the dreary games that he claimed were being ruined by too many penalties being dished out by the Super referees.


Specifically, he mentioned the Blues vs Brumbies and Crusaders vs Sharks games, which were both quite intense and close encounters.

I watched both and if memory serves me correctly, at one stage of the game after halftime the Blues were penalised eleven times in a row before the Brumbies caused an infraction.

I am sure most of those penalties were warranted but eleven in a row, without a yellow card being issued, seemed a mite excessive.

After blasting the refereeing, Telfer moved on to examining the causes and came up with an interesting hypothesis.

To quote Telfer, "Maybe World Rugby [the old IRB] and Sanzar [who control Super Rugby] have backed the game into a corner by constantly playing around with the rules".

I know from talking to one or two Super referees, who have visited the Referees' Association here, that they have expressed concerns on some of the instructions they have been given on how Super Rugby should be officiated.

They have been given certain "priorities" that they should concentrate on, but I am more interested in what they don't rule on.

Things like players in front of the kicker at kick offs and the proliferation of players entering tackles and rucks from the side, rather than "through the gate" or coming directly from behind, are two obvious issues.


Throw in scrum penalties regularly dished out as one team seeks to dominate their opponents – often by illegal tactics by front row players driving their opponents upwards in what is really a dangerous manoeuvre – and you often do have a recipe for a boring game.

Brendan Telfer
Brendan Telfer

So what might be causing these games to be blasted as "dreary" and "boring"?

Two obvious causes could be the speed of the Super rugby games these days, and the large number of infractions referees have to rule on.

From a refereeing perspective, the speed of these games is mind blowing to those of us who played many years ago.

Even at representative level, the game seemed much simpler and slower than what we witness week in, week out, on TV these days.

One has to admire the speed and skill many of the players bring to these games, but the Super rugby players do have one big advantage – they get to train daily so the fitness and skill level at least should be superior to fifty years ago.

One could argue that the players also get rewarded, so they should be faster and better.

But Telfer was also arguing for the laws to be made simpler for players, referees and spectators to follow.

There are just too many infractions to be rule on, he claimed, and most referees would probably agree.

Arguably, the biggest cause of a large number of penalties in a game is the tackle area.

Once the ball carrier has been brought to ground, the tackler can get to his feet and attempt to secure the ball for his team by trying to get his hands on it in order to pick it up.

Or the first arriving opponent can likewise attempt to win the ball via the same means.
But the moment an opponent of the tackled player's team arrives to contest the right to the ball, on his feet, you now have a ruck.

If an opponent of the tackled player has managed to get his hands on the ball legally, as described he can continue to hold on to it as other players from both teams arrive on the scene – the only time a player can legally handle the ball in a ruck.

If the ball hasn't been secured and the ruck is formed, then all hands must now be kept off it if it is still on the ground, and legally only feet can be used to ruck the ball back to the person waiting to receive it.

All this often happens at break-neck speed, pardon the pun and the referee has to rule whether all these players have complied with the tackle and ruck laws.

How much simpler it was before all these rules were imposed at the tackle/ruck area.

What usually happened was one or both groups of the forwards bound on to each other, arrived at the tackle, and attempted to win the ball by rucking the ball (and any unfortunate player hanging on to it) back to the halfback.

The whole process was usually over in a matter of moments and play moved on to the next phase.

All the referee had to do was make sure players were onside, stayed on their feet, and that no-one got trampled on unnecessarily. How simple is that?

Maybe Telfer has some good points after all.